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Wider Europe Briefing: The EU's Big Enlargement Verdict And Sweden's Final NATO Hurdle  


European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen briefs reporters last year on the EU membership applications of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, which should soon know their EU futures.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen briefs reporters last year on the EU membership applications of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, which should soon know their EU futures.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's new newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on the European Commission's upcoming enlargement report and Sweden's final steps in its bid to join NATO.

Brief #1: The EU's Big Enlargement Decision Is Looming

What You Need To Know: The European Commission's long-awaited annual enlargement report is set to be released on November 8. The release has been constantly postponed, as the report was originally expected to come out in early October.

The delay was due to a number of factors. Firstly, there was a wish from EU member states that the enlargement report wouldn't be released ahead of the EU summit in Brussels on October 26-27, with fears that it could "hijack" discussions on other issues such as the bloc's budget and migration.

Secondly, the enlargement report is huge, with assessments on 10 countries -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey, and Ukraine.

There is a lot of ground to cover and EU member states -- the ultimate arbiters in the enlargement process -- have to study the documents before making a decision.

Member states will vote on the enlargement questions at the EU's General Affairs Council, which brings together the bloc's foreign ministers, in Brussels on December 12.

A potential decision will then need to be rubber-stamped at the EU summit in Brussels two days later.

Finally, the enlargement report has been delayed partly because the European Commission has been generous with the time it has allowed several countries to fulfill certain conditions and reforms that Brussels has set for the EU hopefuls.

Deep Background: According to various media reports, the European Commission will recommend the opening of accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova.

An EU source familiar with the enlargement report who could only speak on the condition of anonymity told me that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wouldn't have traveled to Kyiv on November 4 if there hadn't been "positive signals" from Ukraine.

Regarding Ukraine and Moldova, it's important to note the conditions and timelines -- and how those requirements and targets might be referred to in the reports.

Moldova and Ukraine have not yet fulfilled all the priorities set out by the EU in the summer of 2022. That could mean some sort of diplomatic fudge.

While EU member states might decide to open accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova in December, the actual opening of talks -- which involves the "screening" of all the EU legislation that countries need to adopt to become members -- will take place in early 2024. And all bets are off as to how long the whole process will take, as accession talks can sometimes drag on for years.

Drilling Down

  • The most difficult decisions for the European Commission will be whether Georgia gets EU candidate status and whether Bosnia will be given the green light to start accession talks. These decisions are likely to go to the wire: first on November 6, when the heads of cabinet of the 27 EU countries meet to dissect the enlargement report; and then, on November 8, when European commissioners meet to smooth out any final wrinkles.
  • It's also possible that the European Commission's report will not give any clear recommendations. That would make sense in one crucial way: In the end, it isn't the European Commission that decides on candidate status or the opening of accession talks but rather the 27 member states via unanimity.
  • There has also been a precedent of members states rejecting the European Commission's recommendations. In 2009, the commission recommended that North Macedonia (then just Macedonia) start EU accession talks. And despite the commission recommending the same every year, EU member states didn't give North Macedonia a green light for talks to start until 2020.
  • For Georgia, there is still much uncertainty, with widespread concerns in Brussels and among EU member states about the country backsliding on democracy. Despite warnings from the EU, Georgian politics is still deeply polarized. The government has been criticized internationally for its attempt to pass a controversial "foreign agent" law and for the recent impeachment of the country's president for traveling to see EU leaders without government approval.
  • My understanding is that, in the end, Georgia will get candidate status. EU diplomats familiar with the file have said there is plenty of momentum for enlargement within the bloc right now and, with European elections and a change of guard in the European Council and European Commission in 2024, there is a sense that Brussels wants to move the process along as quickly as it can for as many EU hopefuls as possible. There are also concerns about separating Georgia from Ukraine and Moldova. With the latter pair further down the enlargement road and likely to start accession talks soon, even if Georgia does get candidate status, the country will still be behind.
  • For Bosnia, things are even more uncertain. It was already quite controversial that the country was granted candidate status last year, considering that it had barely fulfilled any of the 14 conditions that the European Commission laid out. Still, a handful of countries -- notably Austria, Croatia, Hungary, and Slovenia -- are pushing for accession talks to start with Bosnia, saying that there is a need for candidates from the east and from the Western Balkans to move in unison.
  • Come December, this will inevitably result in a good deal of horse-trading among member states. Most countries are prepared to give the green light to start EU accession talks with Moldova and Ukraine, although Hungary still has concerns about how ethnic Hungarians are being treated in Ukraine. Budapest may try to bargain, only approving Kyiv's bid if other countries sign off on Georgia -- which has developed strong ties with Hungary -- getting candidate status.

Brief #2: Will Sweden Finally Join NATO This Year?

What You Need To Know: Sweden took a big step closer to becoming NATO member No. 32 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan submitted a bill on October 23 to the Turkish parliament approving the Nordic country's membership of the military alliance. With his Justice and Development Party (AK) having a majority in the Turkish parliament, the bill is expected to pass in a few weeks' time and will then be considered by the foreign affairs committee in the unicameral chamber.

The hope in Brussels is that Sweden will officially become a member of the bloc around the time of the NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on November 28-29. But no one is daring to set any firm dates, given just how drawn out this process has become.

Most NATO officials expected both Finland and Sweden to join in the fall of 2022 after having applied for membership shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Apart from Turkey and Hungary, 28 out of 30 countries ratified the Nordic pair's accession bids a year ago.

Ankara wanted to see progress -- notably from Sweden -- in fighting terrorism, lifting an arms embargo on Turkey, and fulfilling extradition requests, mainly Kurds accused by the Turkish state of terrorism.

While Sweden has approved legislation on the first two points, the multiple Koran burnings and Kurdish demonstrations in the country have killed any hopes of a quick Turkish ratification. (Finland "decoupled" its accession process from Sweden and joined NATO in April.)

At the NATO summit in Vilnius in July, there was some sort of deal between Turkey and Sweden that would supposedly pave the way for Turkish ratification. Ankara, however, was in no hurry to do it in July and waited until after the parliamentary summer recess ended in early October.

Deep Background: According to several NATO officials I have spoken to, they expected Erdogan to send the bill to parliament in early October. Two events, however, prevented that: an October 1 suicide bombing in Ankara, which the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) claimed responsibility for; and an incident a few days later, when U.S. forces shot down a Turkish drone in northern Syria.

With Erdogan winning the presidential election in May -- partially on a platform of being tough on terrorism -- the Turkish leader has had to tread carefully on green-lighting Sweden's NATO bid. And there are certainly questions about how much Sweden has done to address Turkey's concerns. Erdogan initially wanted several hundred people -- mainly Kurds -- extradited from Sweden, but last year only four were sent back to Turkey and there will likely be a similar number this year.

Drilling Down

  • The other issue tied to Turkey's ratification of Sweden joining NATO is the potential U.S. sale of F-16 fighter jets to Ankara in a deal worth $20 billion. The deal is still waiting for a green light from the U.S. Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations and Turkey will be watching very closely.
  • Regarding Sweden and NATO, Hungary is still a bit of an unknown quantity, with Budapest not yet ratifying the country's accession bid. When Turkey said it was ready to ratify Finland joining NATO on March 17, Hungary quickly followed suit and Budapest has said that it won't be the last country to approve Sweden's accession. This now appears to have changed. When Hungarian opposition parties asked for a vote on Sweden in the wake of Erdogan's October 23 announcement on ratification, the ruling Fidesz party, which holds a solid majority in parliament, refused to put it on the agenda.
  • Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto recently said that the country's lawmakers "will make a sovereign decision on this issue" regardless of what Turkey does. Earlier in the fall, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban noted that there was "little chance" that parliament would ratify Sweden's accession in 2023.
  • In recent years, Sweden has irked Hungary, notably with a TV report first aired in 2019 by the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company. The 10-minute video, titled The EU And Democracy, is part of a series focusing on the European Union, which has also covered Brexit, lobbying, and asylum rights in the bloc. The episode on Hungary airs several interviews with critics of the current government, including members of the European Parliament, a political activist, Hungarian high school students, and a Swedish lecturer from Budapest's Central European University, which now largely operates out of Vienna after political pressure from Fidesz.
  • It's still not clear what Hungary wants -- in its response to the Swedish video and more broadly. Budapest has not officially demanded that the video be removed and the Swedish educational broadcaster is standing by it. It could be that Hungary is treading with care as it seeks Sweden's approval of frozen EU funds going to Hungary by the end of the year -- in exchange, of course, for Hungary's nod to NATO on Sweden.

Looking Ahead

On October 8, the legality of EU sanctions against Russia will be tested as the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice will hand down a ruling in the case of Dmitry Mazepin.

The Russian oligarch, who made a fortune in the chemical industry, was targeted with an asset freeze and a visa ban by the EU shortly after Russia's attack on Ukraine in 2022.

Like many other Russian businessmen, Mazepin has challenged this decision in the European Court of Justice -- even though only a few have won similar cases.

Members of the European Parliament are used to being addressed by famous political leaders but not by Academy Award-winning actors. On November 8, Cate Blanchett spoke to the full plenary on November 8.

The Australian Hollywood star, who is a UNHCR goodwill ambassador, has been vocal about helping refugees from Syria and is likely to touch upon the need to support those fleeing the ongoing war in the Middle East.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

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